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May 30, 2011

On Finding Gold in the Woods

MorelEditor's note: Frances Cannon is passionate about the contents of her plate and adventures in the kitchen. As the summer food writing intern for Seven Days, she'll be contributing her thoughts on pastry, espresso and the wild forkfuls of the season

Before the weather warmed, I made it my goal to find the heavenly trio of the season: fiddle-heads, ramps, and morels. After all, finding wild edibles is certainly more exciting than a trip to the grocery store, or maybe even (dare I say) the farmers market.

My sister and I easily found fields of fiddle-heads in the flooded marshes near the Intervale in early May. A few days later, we took a trip to Milton to gather baskets of wild leeks, otherwise known as ramps. We collected enough to make eight jars of ramp pesto.

Although morels are prevalent in Vermont around this time of year, they are also very elusive, and so I had little hope of finding them. I did not give up my quest, however, for unlike us, the treasured mushrooms love heavy rains. They grow most commonly under ash trees, but you can also search under aging elms, cottonwoods and sycamores, or in abandoned apple orchards and in regions recovering from fires. Look for black, yellow or large brown morels, but be wary of their deadly doppelgangers. Clue: the edible morel is hollow through and through.


Last week, to my delight, we stumbled on a miniature village of morels while hiking in the Northeast Kingdom. After we found the first few, about a hundred others suddenly appeared in our field of vision -- brain-like golden ovals that stood tall above the leaves, scattered along the edge of the grassy field and airy woods. We were standing in a minefield of my favorite fungus, and we couldn't control our fingers. Soon we couldn't even contain them in our arms, so we had to turn our shirts into makeshift bowls and waddle home like old women cradling tiny grandchildren.

With a basket full of fungus gold, we could have sold the nuggets to a nearby restaurant for a pretty penny, but we decided instead to make an enormous batch of creamy pasta and invite as many people as we could fit in our dining room. We rushed to Cheese Traders for Parmesan, fettuccine, and cream. Luckily, we still had a handful of wild leeks and a jar of ramp pesto to add to the sauce.

I made a quick roux with flour and butter, caramelized the roots of the ramps, and added the cleaned and sliced morels, allowing them to wilt and reduce. I also added some pesto, a bit of tarragon mustard and seasonings, as well as cream and a dash of white wine. Poured over pasta and topped with a pile of finely grated Parmesan, this feast was gold fit for a king.

It has certainly been a fortuitous month for gathering! Now I can check fiddle-heads, ramps, and morels off my list and start counting down the days until I can forage for wild berries and Queen Anne’s Lace.


Sounds like quite the adventure, Frances. Thanks for the post. While I was living in Montana, I recall the record-setting morel season that followed the devastating forest fires of 2000. Competing bands of morel hunters were so territorial about their precious hunting grounds that they'd set up camp and guard them with semi-automatic weapons. Amazing that no one got killed that year out in the woods.

So, question: Do Vermont's morels require fire to bloom?

Frances you put the FUN in fungus.

I do wish that all articles on foraging wild plants included a little warning about overharvesting. Consider that others will come to scour the woods after you and that every plant you pick is one that will not reproduce to provide next year's harvest.

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